James Francis Thorpe was born in a one-room cabin near Prague, Oklahoma to Hiram Thorpe, a farmer, and Mary James, a Pottawatomie Indian and descendant of the last great Sauk and Fox chief Black Hawk, a noted warrior and athlete. His Indian name, Wa-Tho-Huk, translated to “Bright Path”, something that Thorpe definitely had ahead of him. At 24, Thorpe sailed with the American Olympic team to Stockholm, Sweden for the 1912 Olympic Games. He blew away the competition in both the pentathlon and the decathlon and set records that would stand for decades
Thorpe’s glorious Olympic wins were jeopardized in 1913 when it came out that he played two semi-professional seasons of baseball. The Olympics Committee had strict rules about Olympians receiving monetary compensation for participating in professional athletics. Thorpe, who stated he played for the love of the game and not the money, was put under the microscope. Ultimately, it was decided that his baseball experience adversely affected his amateur status in the track and field events. His name was removed from the record books and his gold medals were taken away.
Thorpe moved on after the Olympic ordeal and signed to play baseball for the New York Giants. He played outfield with New York for three seasons before relocating and playing with the Cincinnati Reds in 1917. He played 77 games with the Reds before finally returning to the Giants for an additional 26 games. In 1919 he played his final season in major league baseball, ending on the Boston Braves team.
During much of his baseball years, Thorpe was also immersed in professional football. He played for the Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs from 1915 until 1920 and the Cleveland Indiana (Indians) in 1921. In the years following, he organized, coached and played with the Oorang Indians, a professional football team comprised completely of American Indians. Additionally, he was instrumental in forming the American Professional Football Association, and eventually became the president of the group. Through the years, the association evolved into today’s NFL. In all, Thorpe played with six different teams during his career in pro football, ending with a stint with the Chicago Cardinals in 1929.
Life after professional athletics was exciting for Thorpe. He worked as an extra in movies, served as superintendent of recreation in the Chicago Park System and was also quite vocal with matters of Indian affairs. He also had stints as a public speaker/lecturer and even led an all-Indian song and dance troupe entitled “The Jim Thorpe Show.” The Merchant Marines even had the honor of Thorpe’s presence, as he served with beginning at age 58.
Thorpe died on March 28, 1953 of a heart attack. The tragedy of the loss of his Stockholm medals because of thoughtless and unimportant professionalism darkened much of his career and should have been rectified long ago. His memory should be kept for what it deserves–that of the greatest all-round athlete of our time.” Thorpe’s medals were finally restored to him posthumously in 1982. In addition, and most importantly to his family, his name was put back into the record books.
In 1950, the nation’s press selected Jim Thorpe as the most outstanding athlete of the first half of the 20th Century and in 1996-2001, he was awarded ABC’s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Century.